17 January, 2009
Kathmandu Post, January 16, 2009
A butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, and the flutter cause a hurricane on the other side. This causality, so widely cited by everybody from weather experts to scientists to economists looking at causes for seemingly random but connected phenomena, becomes more relevant in this day and age when a global financial crisis is occuring. The collapse of one mortgage company in America, it appears, could trigger the collapse of the entire house of cards which we call the global economy.
That´s why I am fascinated to find that despite the crisis, the roads of the cities of Granada, a city in Southern Spain, is full of shoppers who throng the classy shopping areas, buying clothes and boots and bags, buying jewelry and scarves and other bric-a-brac, all clearly manufactured in Asia. Despite the ¨Made in Spain¨ stamp (written in English), I can recognize a pair of boots—or an entire store of boots— made in China when I see one. So the question presents itself—how can Southern Spain, whose main economy seem to rest on manufacturing pork and cheese and wine and olive oil, command such a strong currency it can buy up the entire storehouses of Asia at discounted rates? Are our workers so cheap, and our materials so inconsequential, that a winter coat can cost only 6.99 euros? How is it possible, i think, that this kind of frenetic shopping can take place all over Europe, while in parts of Southern Asia we struggle to buy a good pair of shoes? How can the Zacatin be full of goods from Nepal, cheaper in price then if I tried to buy it in Kathmandu? I always buy my clothes when I have the chance to visit Europe—not just because of the quality, which is always better than consumer goods you can find in the supermarkets of Nepal, but also because of the price, which is always more competitive and affordable. How on earth, I asked myself, is this possible?
The answer may lie less in economics than in a rather complicated internalization of self-image which I call the ¨Thamel Factor.¨ In Thamel, that storehouse of Oriental goods, I invariably come upon store assistants who give me an insufferably condescending look when I ask them if I can buy an embroidered cushion cover, or a slightly funky jacket. ¨Well, okay, we´ll show you, if you insist,¨they will say. ¨But really this is not for Nepalis. Our main market is Europe. Nepalis can´t afford to buy stuff like this.¨
And here lies the gist of the matter. That sneer, which bothered me for years, comes into focus as I look at the piles of scarves and t-shirts and jewelry, all made in Nepal, all half price and discounted in the windows of Spain. Precious and semi-precious stones of Nepal make it out of the country, meant for consumers other than the ones who produce and manufacture these objects. But in its stead, we get no wine and cheese. And why is that? Is it because the Europeans make us believe our goods are worth so little that they can buy up the entire marketplace for a pittance? Or is it because we, in some way, also believe this?
Yes, of course. An old college saying comes back to me; the colonizer and the colonized are always complicit. This could never happen if employers and factory owners in Asia, and Central America, and Africa, didn´t play along. China brutalizes its people and makes them work at slavery rates. And everywhere else from free trade zones to maquiladoras, from Mexico to Bangladesh, the people reinforce over and over--the worth of a poor human being must remain low.
Does the fault lie only with the First World? Despite all my education in colonialism, I say no. The fault also lies with us, the people of the East who believe the worth of our work is so low, and the price of our materials so immaterial, that we can—indeed, should—sell everything to Europe and that the locals who make these objects can never be worth enough to buy them.
Imagine, for instance, if Ray Kroc had said: ¨Begone you stupid Americans, these luscious hamburgers are meant only for the Australians, who know how to appreciate a good hamburger when they see one.¨ Or if the Spanish had said: ¨Vamooosh Chulos, this ham and cheese is not meant for you, its only for our special customers the French.¨ Imagine what would have happened then? Imagine if the French made their wine only for their special customers the Americans, and refused to sell it to the locals? Would they be the great civilization that they are now?
But such is the case in Asia. We imagine that our customers are always the Others—white skinned, fair faced, with pockets loaded with euros. We don´t know that they are just like us, that they can only afford a closetful of clothes and after that even the most acquisitive of human beings tire of buying, and it would make sense to make less clothes but pay your workers more. Then, perhaps, a Nepali could also have enough money to buy some European oil and cheese, and olive oil owners in Spain wouldn´t have to worry about how the market was doing badly.
At the moment, the assymetry of the world rests on a pure economic illusion that people of one part of the world deserve more than the other. The illusion is maintained not just by the First World that suffers under this glut of overproduction, but also by the people in Third World countries who persist in thinking they are too poor to afford paying their workers, too poor to buy quality goods, and too poor to have a symmetrical exchange rate.
This is all very well and good, you may think. After all, its working in the favor of one side of the planet so why change it, right? Well, that´s when we come back to the butterfly. Because when one side of the world groans from poverty, unable to afford even three meals a day, when their schoolhouses have no electricity and their hospitals lack medicine, when they work years of their lives for more than eighty hours in foreign countries but return home with less money than when they left, then its not just the psychic burden that Europe and America has to bear. It is also the fact that the lives of each and every one in the planet becomes inextricably intertwined, and poverty in one part affects the other. Affluence in the Third World would bring a boom in human cultural and economic growth, whereas right now all it brings about is individuals who struggle to find work (in both sides of the planet)—one side determined to dump its cheap goods made by slave-like labor while the other part sinks under the weight of Asia.
How long could such a state of affairs last? Well, now we know. Till 2009, when a butterfly fluttered its wings, and a global financial crisis that nobody understands took over the world. But change is not always bad. This may be the time to renegotiate—not just trade relations, and prices, and financial equivalence, but also the way in which we imagine ourselves as people of the world. The poor have to understand they are only poor as long as they imagine themselves to be so. In Nepal, that means seeing a human being as somebody worth much more than he or she is today.